Feature Creep: Unwanted Bells and Whistles in Software

Don’t fret! That’s not a bad thing or a shortcoming on your part; you’re likely using the features that make sense for your needs and your workflow. Instead, the proliferation of unnecessary features is a symptom of most developers’ incessant overcomplication.

This is such a recurring issue that there’s a name for it: “feature creep” is the incorporation of new, nonessential features in a product, often applied to computer software or mobile applications. (It’s not unique to software, though. When’s the last time you used anything but the “normal wash” setting on your washing machine?)

By itself, perhaps feature creep wouldn’t be such a bad thing. After all, you can just ignore the features you don’t use. But adding useless features leads predictably to software bloat, where software becomes slower and more resource-intensive with each version, eventually crippling user systems.

Worthless Features

There’s a long and venerated history of software products hyping valuable features that turn out to be anything but. Windows Vista incorporated so many unnecessary “beautification” options that many systems running it didn’t have enough processing power to do anything else. One such feature, DreamScene, allowed users to display a video as their desktop, crippling their ability to actually use the computer. And, not to pick on Microsoft, but David Pogue famously pointed out in his 2006 TED talk that using all the toolbars for Microsoft Word left only a tiny area for actual text.

Apps have suffered the same problems. Two websites and applications that are now highly successful started out as bloated and worthless. Ever heard of the social photo-sharing application Burbn? It allowed users to check in at locations and earn points for taking photos with friends. It was so complex to use that it flopped completely. The developers took a hard look at their features and winnowed everything down to the essentials of photo-sharing before relaunching the site — as Instagram. Similarly, YouTube was originally a complicated video-dating website, but when no one used it, it was repurposed as a straightforward video-sharing site.

Not all creeping features are entirely worthless. Antivirus software has always (yet not always successfully) balanced effectiveness against usability. A “100% reliable” virus-detection program would consume most of a computer’s processing speed; today’s antivirus programs on Windows slow down website loading times by an average of 11 to 16%. That’s not to say that virus protection is an unnecessary feature — merely to point out that even valuable features come with tradeoffs. Even something as widely accepted as a firewall may be a wasted feature. After all, hackers get in despite firewalls.

How Do You Separate Good Features From Bloat?

When assessing costly legal software, you want to find a system that does everything you need and nothing you don’t. How do you judge which features will be useful and which are unnecessary?

It boils down to a ruthless focus on whatever problem you’re trying to solve. Continually ask yourself why you’re getting a program. If your purpose is to streamline and simplify legal holds, look for software that will do that. If you only need to review datasets for effective early case assessment, don’t worry about production of court-ready exhibits. Stay laser-focused on your purpose.

Weigh all features against the problem you have; if a particular feature isn’t going to help you solve your problem, you don’t need it. One or two unnecessary features may not impede usability or slow the program down, but beyond that, you’re paying for bells and whistles, not functionality, and the intuitive user-friendliness of the software is likely to suffer.

Above all else, use the low-tech way to gain information before signing on to a shiny new service: talk to real people who are using similar software. You can also research options on a review site like G2 Crowd to learn how well it’s likely to fit with your needs.

Don’t waste time and money on software that’s designed to solve a problem you aren’t having. If you remember to pay attention to usability rather than the sexiness of added features, it’s not hard to avoid feature creep — at least in your legal software. Your kitchen appliances might be a different story.